Top: Frankenthaler’s “Flood, 1967” is synthetic polymer on canvas (124 by 140 inches).
Middle: Mark Rothko’s oil “Number 18, 1951,” is 81 by 69 inches.
Bottom: Helen Frankenthaler’s 1973 acrylic on canvas”Off White Square” (79 by 235 inches) is in the Denver Art Museum show “Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975.” All photographs are courtesy of the American Federation for the Arts and Geoffrey Clements
The role of art is not to report the visible, but to reveal the unknown. This becomes evident in a recently opened exhibition at the Denver Art Museum. “Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975,” curated by Karen Wilkin.
The radiant, uninflected hues and vast canvases stained with color in this exhibition are vigorous, yet ambiguous. They are large, luminous and purely visual.
Unlike the 1964 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, curated by the infamous critic Clement Greenberg, where he coined the phrase “Post Painterly Abstraction,” this exhibition attempts to broaden Color Field painting.
Greenberg included in his show the artists Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Walter Darby Bannard, Jack Bush, Gene Davis, Friedel Dzubas, Sam Francis, Jules Olitski, Larry Poons and Frank Stella, all of whom were using broad areas of unmodulated color.
He did not include Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Hans Hoffman, Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman as Wilkin does in this exhibition organized by the American Federation of the Arts.
The exhibition features more than 40 expansive canvases. And Wilkin seems to have grabbed on to Frankenthaler, who claimed to be influenced by DeKooning and Pollock.
“DeKooning made enclosed linear shapes and applied the brush. Pollock used shoulder and ropes and ignored the edges and corners. I felt I could stretch more in the Pollock framework . . . You could become a DeKooning disciple or satellite or mirror, but you could depart from Pollock,” Frankenthaler said to Gerald Nordland in 1965.
The exhibition’s focal painting is Rothko’s “Number 18, 1951.”
For me, seeing a real Rothko in Colorado is worth a trip to Denver in a snowstorm. That and the vast Frankenthaler canvases, particularly “Off White Square, 1973” nearly 20-feet wide, and “Seven Types of Ambiquity, 1957,” an elegant early oil painting. Larry Poons’ “Han-San Cadence, 1963,” a richly stained ochre canvas with splotches of turquoise and pale blue, like stars in an earthy sky, is also striking.
Greenberg is the link between many of the artists in this show. He defined their style and created an -ism in art history. Many critics have dismissed “Post Painterly Abstraction” as reactionary, patriarchal and phallocentric. Some have suggested that the work is merely decorative. Perhaps this is true. But Wilkin has curated a pleasing exhibition filled with radiant hues.
Frankenthaler’s work is far from patriarchal and phallocentric. She is the rare woman making art with serious male artists of the time. A student of Hoffman, married to Motherwell and the inspiration for Louis and Noland, she even shared a studio with Dzubas.
Her stain paintings deserve the recognition they have received. Frankenthaler managed to depart from Pollock and create her own sensual style.
Wilkin writes in her essay in the exhibition catalog:
“Unfortunately, the minds of many spectators, who include makers of art, as well as art historians, critics and curators, have been carried so far into regions so purely literary that they seem to have forgotten that the visual is as much a cerebral function as the verbal.”
And as valuable, even if all the work in this show is not as ravishing as Frankenthaler’s, Poons’ and that Rothko.
“Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975”: Tuesday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, noon-5 p.m.; Monday, closed, through Feb. 3, Denver Art Museum, North Building with a few paintings in the Contemporary Art Gallery on the third floor of the Hamilton Building.
leannegoebel.blogspot.comLeanne Goebel is an arts journalist living in Pagosa Springs.